Top Ten Katharine Hepburn Films
Katharine Hepburn was a star unlike any other. An upper-class Bryn Mawr graduate with the disciplined athleticism of a true tomboy, she was utterly uninterested in Hollywood glamour. Known for her casual slouchy style and independent spirit, Katharine Hepburn was an unyielding force with a mind of her own. Tough and assertive both onscreen and off, it seems the only man capable of taming her was the man who became her most famous onscreen partner, Spencer Tracy. The real-life love affair of Tracy and Hepburn has since become legendary, lasting for over 20 years and through 9 films until Tracy's untimely death at the age of 67.
But even beyond her films with Tracy, Kate managed to conquer Hollywood on her own terms. She mastered comedies, dramas, and everything in between. Throughout her career, she won a record-breaking 4 Oscars for Best Actress (a record that still stands) and racked up 12 nominations in total. Enjoying an incredible career that lasted for decades, on this list alone you'll find films from the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s and '80s. If you have yet to see the real Kate Hepburn on screen, you're in for a treat.
FYI: I chose the order of my Katharine Hepburn top ten by considering each film's importance in Katharine’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Katharine Hepburn film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Katharine Hepburn Films
- The Philadelphia Story
- The Lion in Winter
- Bringing Up Baby
- The African Queen
- Stage Door
- On Golden Pond
- Little Women
- State of the Union
1. “The Philadelphia Story” (1940)
The film that single-handedly revitalized Katharine’s career, this smart and sophisticated romantic comedy, also, provided Kate with one of her most iconic roles. She stars as Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia socialite who is days away from marrying her lower-class fiancé, George. But, Tracy’s wedding plans get seriously derailed when her ex-husband, Dexter (Cary Grant), decides to crash her wedding along with a couple of tabloid journalists (played by Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey). The Philadelphia Story is based on the successful Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry (who, actually, wrote it with Kate in mind). After originating the role of Tracy on Broadway, Kate managed to buy the film rights to the play with the help of her friend, billionaire Howard Hughes. This gave the Hollywood bigwigs no choice but to cast her in the role of Tracy if they ever wanted to adapt the play for film. Thanks to a string of flops, Kate had recently been dubbed “box office poison” but, this film’s success changed everything. Since Kate owned the film rights, this, also, gave her approval over the film’s director, screenwriter, and cast. For the director, she chose her good friend, George Cukor, whom she had worked with multiple times before. Originally, Kate intended the role of Dexter to be played by Clark Gable and the role of tabloid journalist Mike to be played by Spencer Tracy (whom she had yet to work with). However, when both of her first choices proved to be unavailable, Kate turned to her frequent co-star, Cary Grant, to fill in as Dexter and MGM studio head Louis B. Meyer suggested Jimmy Stewart for the role of Mike (Stewart would later win a Best Actor Oscar for the role). The combination of Kate, Grant, and Stewart proved to be brilliant, with all three giving career-defining performances. Surprisingly, The Philadelphia Story, actually, proved to be the last film Grant and Kate would ever appear in together, marking the end of a screen partnership that had lasted throughout 4 films (3 of which are on this list).
2. "The Lion in Winter” (1968)
Set in 1183, The Lion in Winter focuses on the events surrounding the Christmas court of King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his immensely dysfunctional family. Kate stars as the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife and queen, whom he has been keeping in prison since her last uprising ten years earlier. Henry, Eleanor, and their three sons (John, Richard, and Geoffrey) are temporarily reunited for the Christmas court, and no sooner are they together than the mind games begin as each family member makes their own bid for power in their own distinct way. Based on the play by James Goldman (and adapted by him for the screen), The Lion in Winter features a bitingly clever script. The film won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Kate’s brilliant performance as the quick-witted Eleanor won her a 3rd Oscar for Best Actress. However, in an unprecedented tie, Kate, actually, had to share her Best Actress Oscar with Barbra Streisand for her performance in Funny Girl. It remains the only time in Oscar history that such a tie has occurred in any actress category. Kate was, actually, Peter O’Toole’s first choice to play Eleanor, but after the death of Spencer Tracy, O’Toole was concerned she would turn the part down. Instead, her response was simply, “Do it before I die.” However, Katharine made it clear from the very beginning that she wasn’t going to put up with the tardiness and late night carousing O'Toole was infamous for. No doubt intimidated by her, O’Toole, dutifully, obeyed her every command and in the end, Kate enjoyed working with Peter, tremendously. She later claimed that his youthful energy helped restore her at a time when she really needed it most and, for his part, O’Toole even ended up naming his daughter Kate after Hepburn.
3. “Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
Considered by many to be the definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby is, easily, one of the fastest and funniest movies ever made. Kate plays the part of Susan Vance, a daffy heiress who after meeting paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) on a golf course, somehow manages to completely upend his entire life with her madcap impulses (partially by accident and partially by design). Things only get more complicated as Susan begins to find more elaborate excuses to keep David by her side as long as possible (therefore preventing him from attending his wedding with the dull Miss Swallow). One of the first of these excuses is her “need” of help in transporting her new pet leopard, Baby, to her family’s country home in Connecticut. Once David, reluctantly, agrees to help, his life will never be the same. Directed by Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby marks the second time Katharine would star opposite Cary Grant and the two play perfectly off of one another as the polar opposites David and Susan. Original author Hagar Wilde adapted her own short story for the screen, along with screenwriter Dudley Nichols. They, actually, wrote the part of Susan with Katharine in mind and, indeed, no one else could have pulled off the fast-talking, overconfident, and impulsive Susan any better. Katharine and Grant ad-libbed frequently while filming and production often became delayed simply due to the uncontrollable fits of laughter the two kept falling into. In the original story, Baby was a black panther, but when a reliable trained panther couldn’t be found, Baby was rewritten as a leopard so, Nissa (a trained leopard who had been appearing on film for 8 years) could be used instead. To keep the actors’ interactions with the leopard to a minimum, split screens and a puppet leopard were used in certain scenes. However, the scenes that featured Baby moving freely around Susan’s apartment were, actually, filmed with Katharine and Nissa in a modified cage, with the camera and sound equipment merely poking through the fencing. For the most part, Katharine was pretty fearless around the leopard. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was, absolutely, terrified of her. Kate took it upon herself to torture him about this by throwing a stuffed leopard through the vent of his dressing room, causing him to run out like a shot.
4. “The African Queen” (1951)
Based on the novel by C.S. Forester, The African Queen not only marks Katharine’s very first color production, but it is often considered to be her first foray into “middle-aged” roles. Set in 1914, the film stars Kate as Rose Sayer, a British missionary stationed in a small village in German East Africa with her brother, Samuel. Their only source of mail and supplies comes courtesy of Canadian expatriate Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-winning performance) and his small steam boat, The African Queen. But, the Sayers’ peaceful ministry is, suddenly, destroyed when World War I breaks out around them, making them British citizens living in an enemy colony. The German soldiers quickly destroy their village and round up the locals to use as soldiers. When Charlie and his boat are finally able to return with supplies, he finds Rose alone in an empty village, her brother having already died from a combination of fever and heartbreak. Rather than leave her alone, Charlie offers to take her with him, but Rose has more dangerous plans. Rather than simply leaving, she wants to help the British win the war against the Germans while she’s still in enemy territory. She’s devised a plan to turn the African Queen into a torpedo boat and blast the Germans’ key gunboat out of the water. It’s an insane idea that would require them to not only navigate treacherous waters, but, also, sneak right past a well-armed German fort. Charlie is sure she’ll eventually give up on this plan as they travel on, but Rose is not a woman who gives up easily. Directed and co-written by John Huston, the majority of The African Queen was filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo. However, any scenes that required the actors to, actually, get into the water were filmed in England due to the dangers of exposure. Despite that precaution, however, most of the cast and crew fought various illnesses throughout the African shoot, including dysentery, malaria, and even appendicitis. Both Bogart and Huston were spared from sickness by existing solely on imported whiskey and scotch, therefore avoiding the contaminated drinking water. Kate wasn’t quite so lucky. Disapproving of Bogart and Huston’s drinking habits, she had vowed to drink only water in order to maintain a level head. This plan backfired, terribly, when she contracted dysentery (at one point, she was forced to throw up into a bucket in between takes).
5. “Holiday” (1938)
Directed by Kate’s frequent collaborator, George Cukor, Holiday is, actually, a remake of the lesser-known 1930 film of the same name, which is itself based on the play by Philip Barry (who would later go on to write The Philadelphia Story). This heartfelt romantic comedy reteams Katharine with her Bringing Up Baby co-star, Cary Grant and fans of their later work in The Philadelphia Story will, likely, enjoy this movie, as well. Grant stars as Johnny Case, a hardworking man who has just gotten engaged to the beautiful Julia Seton after experiencing a whirlwind courtship over Christmas vacation. When the two return home to announce their engagement to Julia’s family, Johnny is shocked to discover that his new fiancée is, actually, extremely rich. While Johnny is, immediately, accepted by Julia’s down-to-earth sister, Linda (Katharine), and her long-suffering brother, Ned (Lew Ayres), her father Edward Seton is not so easily convinced. He has very firm ideas about what his future son-in-law should do with his life and what Julia’s lifestyle should be. But, it turns out that Johnny already has plans of his own and his plans are not exactly what Mr. Seton or Julia had in mind. Originally, Holiday was meant to reunite Grant with his Awful Truth co-star, Irene Dunne, but Cukor decided that Katharine would be a better fit. At the time, casting Kate was a big risk since she was already considered to be “box-office poison” by all the major studios. But, Katharine was very familiar with the role of Linda. She had understudied the role on Broadway and even performed a scene from Holiday for her very first Hollywood screen test. Of course, Katharine and Grant sparkle in this movie, showcasing the chemistry that made their screen partnerships so memorable. A playful movie with great characters, this is a film about the virtues of being childish and the importance of living life to the fullest.
6. “Stage Door” (1937)
Loosely based on the stage play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, Stage Door focuses on the lives of a group of struggling stage actresses living in a New York City boarding house. Katharine stars as Terry, a girl from a wealthy upper-class family who has taken it upon herself to become an actress, despite the fact that she has no experience whatsoever. The boarding house featured in Stage Door is, actually, based on the real-life Rehearsal Club, a residence in New York that was founded, especially, for professional women of the theatre. This intelligent film features an amazing group of talented female stars, including Eve Arden, a young Lucille Ball and a 14-year-old Ann Miller (Miller, actually, lied about her age to get cast, even using a fake birth certificate). But, the real standout, (besides Katharine) is Ginger Rogers as Terry’s world-weary roommate, Jean. Rogers gives a scene-stealing and hilarious performance that marked a major turning point in her career as a straight actress. Behind the scenes, director Gregory La Cava encouraged the actresses to ad lib, while the screenwriters, actually, listened to the girls joking during rehearsals and incorporated their style of speaking into the film, as well. This naturalistic approach, definitely, payed off in Stage Door’s fast-paced and cutting dialogue.
7. “Summertime” (1955)
Directed and co-written by David Lean, Summertime tells the story of Jane Hudson (Katharine), a middle-aged secretary from Ohio who is finally fulfilling her life-long dream to visit Venice, Italy. But, as an unmarried woman traveling alone, Jane soon starts to feel a little lonely watching all of the romantic couples that surround her. Although it’s still not too late for Jane to have the Italian romance she’s always dreamed of, it may not play out exactly in the way she always imagined. This bittersweet romantic film is based on the play, The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents. The play had been written, specifically, for Shirley Booth (TV’s Hazel), who ended up winning a Tony for her performance as Jane. Originally, it was intended for Booth to reprise her role in the film, but when it was decided that she was getting a bit too old for the role, the part went to Kate, instead. Filmed entirely on location in Venice, Summertime acts as a virtual love letter to the ancient city. However, the Italian government was, initially, reluctant to allow Lean to film in Venice during the summer season, out of fear that the shoot would negatively affect the income of local businesses (particularly gondoliers) during the height of the tourist season. Lean was, finally, given permission to film after United Artists agreed to give a sizable donation to finance the restoration of St. Mark’s Basilica. Lean, also, had to promise the Basilica’s cardinal (the Patriarch of Venice) that none of the cast or crew would be seen wearing short dresses or bare arms around the city’s holy sites. Summertime was later cited as Lean’s personal favorite out of his films and tourism to Venice exploded after the film’s release. Entirely dependent on the power of Katharine’s charm, this film, unfortunately, left Kate with an unwanted souvenir. While filming a scene that required her to fall into the canal, Kate contracted an infection in her eyes due to her time spent in the polluted water. The infection ended up turning into a rare form of conjunctivitis that would continue to plague Kate for the rest of her life.
8. “On Golden Pond” (1981)
Representing the most recent film on this list, On Golden Pond, also, marks Katharine’s very last Oscar-winning performance. Based on the play by Ernest Thompson and adapted by him for the screen, the film tells the story of Ethel (Kate) and Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda), an aging couple who have returned once again to their beloved lakeside cottage to spend the summer just as they have many times before. But, Norman is starting to show the signs of senility and the knowledge of his own mortality, immediately, puts a damper on their vacation. In the hopes of brightening things up, Ethel invites their daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), to the cabin for Norman’s 80th birthday. Chelsea and Norman’s relationship has always been a bit estranged but, out of love for her mother, Chelsea stops by the cabin anyway. Only she doesn’t come alone; Chelsea, also, drags along her boyfriend, Bill, and his 13-year-old son, Billy. As it turns out, Chelsea and Bill already have a vacation of their own planned and they had hoped that Billy could stay at the cabin with the Thayers until they return. Surprisingly, both Ethel and Norman agree to take in Billy for the summer, an arrangement that Billy isn’t too happy about. But, despite the odds, this 13-year-old boy and cantankerous 80-year-old man may still be able to find common ground. A moving film about aging and mending the relationships that matter while you still can, On Golden Pond’s two supreme stars elevate the material more than any screenwriter could dream. Henry Fonda’s Oscar-winning role of Norman Thayer would prove to be his last and the actor was already quite ill during filming. Shockingly, Kate and Fonda had, actually, never even met before filming began, but soon discovered that they had a great number of friends in common. On the first day of shooting, Kate presented Fonda with a brown fedora that had belonged to Spencer Tracy (his “lucky hat”) to wear throughout the film. Fonda was so touched by the gesture that he painted a watercolor painting of the 3 hats he wears in the movie and gave it to her. He, also, had lithograph copies of the painting made to hand out to everyone else who worked on the film (each numbered and with a personalized thank you from Fonda). After Fonda’s death, Kate ended up giving the original painting to Ernest Thompson (the film's screenwriter and original playwright). She found that the painting reminded her of both Fonda and Tracy too much for her to keep.
9. “Little Women” (1933)
Based on the beloved 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, this adaptation of the timeless coming-of-age story was, actually, the very first sound version every made. Set in Concord, Massachusetts around the time of the Civil War, Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters as they grow from young girls to women, experiencing great love and great tragedy along the way. Katharine plays the second oldest March sister, Jo, a vivacious tomboy not unlike Katharine’s real-life younger self. Directed by George Cukor, the entire production of Little Women was painstakingly authenticated. Everything from the costumes, the furnishings, and the household appliances were heavily researched for historical accuracy. The reason for this was, no doubt, due to the un-credited involvement of producer David O. Selznick (who would later go on to produce Gone With The Wind). Even the interior of the March home was directly based on author Louisa May Alcott’s Massachusetts home. Katharine, actually, added to the authenticity by requesting that costume designer Walter Plunkett make a recreation of one of her grandmother’s actual Civil War-era dresses to be used as a dress for Jo (naturally, he agreed). In the end, Little Women ended up taking a year to film with a million dollar budget. But, luckily, the film was massively successful, earning over a 100,000 dollars in its first week alone, with some schools even making it part of their curriculum to see it.
10. “State of the Union” (1948)
Naturally, this list wouldn't be complete without including one of the films featuring Kate opposite her most frequent co-star, Spencer Tracy. Directed by the great Frank Capra, State of the Union is unusual for a Tracy and Hepburn movie, in that it is really more of a drama than a comedy. It’s, also, notable for being the only film Capra ever made for MGM (this was done, primarily, to allow him to cast Tracy, who was an MGM contract player). Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, State of the Union stars Tracy as Grant Matthews, an aircraft tycoon who has been estranged from his wife, Mary (Katharine), for quite some time. Officially separated for over four months now, since then Grant has been caring on an affair with Republican newspaper magnate Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). Ambitious to a fault, Kay hopes to use her paper’s influence to get Grant nominated as the Republican candidate for President. In reality, Grant has never even considered politics, but Kay convinces him that the country needs “a man like him”. For the sake of appearances, Mary is brought in for the campaign and, to everyone’s surprise, actually encourages Grant on his bid for presidency. However, Mary expects Grant to stick to his convictions throughout his campaign, while Kay and Republican strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) encourage him to shy away from his more controversial ideas in order to secure a nomination. This all causes Mary to worry: if Grant compromises his beliefs too much over the course of his campaign, will there be any of her husband left by the end of it? State of the Union centers around the timeless issue of political corruption. The character of Grant Matthews was based in large part on Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie, who famously held many of the internationalist beliefs that Grant spouts throughout the film and was, also, known for his ongoing extramarital affair with New York Herald Tribune editor Irita Van Doren. Originally, Claudette Colbert was to play the part of Mary, however, clashes between her and Capra resulted in her leaving the production. Kate was cast only days before filming, but since she had, actually, been helping Tracy learn his lines, she was already quite familiar with the script.
Honorable Mention: “Woman of the Year” (1942)
And of course, how could I finish my Katharine Hepburn Top Ten without mentioning the film that introduced Kate to the undisputed love of her life and most celebrated screen partner, Spencer Tracy. The couple became one of Hollywood’s most famous love affairs, eventually appearing in 9 films together, and it all started with this movie. Woman of the Year is, quite simply, a romantic comedy in the best “when opposites attract” tradition. Kate plays Tess Harding, an international affairs correspondent and dyed-in-the-wool career woman. Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sports journalist and straightforward man’s man. Both work for the New York Chronicle, which means that it’s just a matter of time before they cross paths. Once they do meet, despite the extreme differences in their interests and lifestyles, Sam and Tess, unexpectedly, fall in love and are wed soon afterwards. But, once they’re married, problems start to erupt, particularly concerning Tess’ unyielding commitment to her work. Although Sam appreciates Tess’ ambition, he begins to wonder what really is more important to her: their marriage or living up to her title as “Woman of the Year”. Katharine’s close friend, Garson Kanin, wrote the original outline for Woman of the Year, while his brother, Michael Kanin, and Ring Larder, Jr. wrote the actual script (with Kate, also, contributing along the way). Since Katharine was the one who brought the script to MGM, she was given first choice of director and co-star: choosing George Stevens and Tracy, respectively. Although Kate had never met Tracy before, she had wanted to work with him for quite a while. She, actually, chose George Stevens to direct over her good friend (and frequent collaborator) George Cukor, specifically, to make the set more pleasant for Tracy. While Cukor was known for being, primarily, a woman’s director, Stevens had a reputation as a man’s man and, therefore, someone Kate believed Tracy would relate to better: “I just thought he should have a big manly man on his team… someone who could talk about baseball”. Although famous today, at the time, Tracy and Hepburn’s romance was kept tightly under wraps by the studio out of respect for Tracy’s wife. Normally, the studio would've discouraged such a love affair from ever taking place, but Kate proved to be such a stabilizing influence on Tracy (especially concerning his battle with alcoholism) that their relationship was allowed to continue without interference.
And if you would like to learn more about the one and only Katharine Hepburn, check out Katharine’s autobiography, Me: The Stories of My Life or Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic by Jean Druesdow.
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